I have read a few claims recently about the detrimental effects of the Internet. The most recent one came from the New York Times in the article “The Flight from Conversation” by Sherry Turkle, a professor from MIT, who says that the Internet is making our relationships with one another superficial. Her idea is that we are mistaking our “likes” on Facebook as real conversation and our “friends” online as real friends. I think this argument comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of online communication.
Turkle says that for the past 15 years she has studied connective technologies and talked to “hundreds of people of all ages and circumstances about their plugged in lives.” She relies primarily on anecdotes, and one of my favorite quotes from economist Roger Brinner says that “the plural of anecdote is not data.” A collection of subjective experiences does not make them objective. Anecdotal evidence is of limited usefulness; it can provide case studies and be the starting point for research, but it is generally considered as weak evidence.
Turkle says that the little devices we carry around with us are so powerful “they change not only what we do but who we are.” I basically agree with this. I don't particularly think this is negative. People write less. Last year the post office closed 3,700 locations. Some of this was due to expanded retail marketing, but much of it is because email and texting make most letter writing superfluous. Does this mean that somehow our correspondence is less meaningful?
I have hundreds of anecdotes of my own. Let's take my community college cafeteria in 1984. There were no cell phones. There was no email. The college library had a non-networked computer lab with TRS 80s. Our only hope was to actually talk to somebody face to face. I would go into the cafeteria, buy a cup of coffee, sit down at the table, and ask the nearest girl “What classes are you taking?” or “What's your major?” with what I hoped would pass for something not quite entirely unlike sincerity. One might suspect that, even though I was trying to start up a conversation, I may not have been really all that interested in what classes they were taking or what their major might have been. Needless to say, my intent was to have a conversation. More often than not, the “conversation” stopped there. But once in a great while it led to more coffee elsewhere.
Today, I have 879 friends on Facebook, but let's take a closer look. I do not expect birthday cards from 875 of them. I originally started using Facebook because many educators and instructional designers I met at education conferences (both face-to-face and online) were using it to share materials, links, and contact information. This accounts for at least 300 of my “friends.” About 200 of my “friends” are literary journals, editors, and literary agents. They never call or come over for dinner, yet I follow them on Facebook because I write and want to keep up with what is going on in the literary world.
A little over a hundred friends on Facebook are family. Some I see often, and many of them I have never met. Some of these distant cousins live in Ireland. We will be using Facebook to plan a birthday/family reunion this December when my father turns 80 and my little brother turns 50. There is nothing superficial about that.
You might have friends at your local service organization, temple, or church. But what happens when you go to that weekly meeting? Do you have a deep conversation? Maybe not, but you probably know that if you need help, you have a community to fall back on when things are tough. Or you might be willing to lend a hand to someone who is in need. It might be something simple like a lift to the hospital on a Monday morning or a chore that an older person might find difficult to do. When you meet those people, you might just smile and nod. The “like” in Facebook is that smile and nod.
Social networks can be superficial, and yet over and over again, we see that when there is trouble, those friends in social networks can have a major impact. I am thinking here of the Arab Spring and the communications networks that sprang up out of Twitter to change the face of the Arab world forever. Maybe the technology has allowed us to see the superficial surface of human communication frozen in time in the social network, but that is not how we should be judging technology because most people seem to be using to enhance their connections with one another rather than trivialize them.
Geoff Cain is a member of the Redwood Technology Consortium and director of distance education at College of the Redwoods. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org<